Our Ministry Moment in American History, E-pistle 05.13.10

Our Ministry Moment in American History, E-pistle 05.13.10

Billi likes my Old First history tours: they reference so much U.S. history. I like hearing that: Nancy and Peter know a lot more Old First historical detail; I fill in my blanks with the context of U.S. history.

Old First’s history, not surprisingly, is both informed by and an illustration of American history. This congregation, after all, was founded 49 years before the American Revolution! Here we sit, 284 years later, a few blocks from Independence Hall… and the Bell, and Ben and Betsy… in the heart of “colonial Philadelphia.”

Curiously, I know little about the revolutionary era. Old First’s building was commandeered by the British and used as a hospital for injured soldiers. Our pastor was imprisoned for preaching to Hessian soldiers. The Liberty Bell, spirited out of Philadelphia for safety, was hidden by our sister congregation, the Reformed Church in Allentown.

My ability to pair our congregation’s history with American story gets starts in the first half of 19th century as abundant coal, iron ore, timber and, later, oil resources, coupled with first the canal system and then railroads, transform Pennsylvania’s economy from farming to manufacturing. This state becomes part of our young nation’s industrial heartland.

Philadelphia is redefined; Old City became increasingly an industrial neighborhood; eventually 4th/Race was a less than welcoming place for our ministry. In 1882, Old First moved just a mile away to 10th/Wallace, leaving behind our original (and current) property where we had constructed three different church buildings. 10th/Wallace was a quiet, residential neighborhood in near North Philly.

That same industrialization affecting Philadelphia was changing the face of our country. Political and economic tension arose over the growing difference between the industrial North and the rural, farming South. This was the greater backdrop, with the institution of slavery its most obvious symptom, for the Civil War. In turn, the defeat of the South heated up what was to become an epic emigration, Southern Blacks coming North looking for freedom and economic, educational and social opportunity.

The stream that had begun with the underground railroad grew after1865. It wasn’t long before the arrival of African Americans in Philadelphia changed the face of our second neighborhood. As 10th/Wallace became home to increasing numbers of African-Americans, it never occurred to the European American congregation that was Old First back then to open their church doors to their new neighbors. Old First decided, in an instance of “white flight” so early that the phenomenon had not yet been so-named, that it belonged elsewhere. In 1916, right before the World War I, Old First relocated to 50th/Locust.

That move happened in the middle of what was to become known as the Great Emigration. In 1910, 7 of 8 million African Americans lived below the “cotton curtain.” Between 1910 and 1930, 1/10 of the country’s Black population moved North. In 1916, the year Old First moved to West Philly, the Pennsylvania Railroad began bringing 500 African American men a day North to work on the railroad.

In Old First’s history, I explain the consequent demographic changes in West Philadelphia are either an example of God’s sense of humor and/or God’s offering second chances. Old First sold the 10th/Wallace property to St. Paul’s Baptist Church (that still calls that building home), but it wasn’t long before the newest neighbors in West Philly, around 50th/Locust, were also Americans of African descent. In this period, Old First managed to open its doors a crack to some of its Black neighbors.

Fast forward to the height of the civil rights movement and urban unrest of the 60’s. Many mainline, mostly white congregations were abandoning the city altogether for the suburbs. Old First was considering a similar move, when, instead, it returned to our original downtown location. Taking up residence again in Center City turned into a city-wise mission commitment that often focuses on our most vulnerable neighbors– the urban poor, disadvantaged children and the homeless.

Ironically, the occasion for returning to 4th/Race was not mission. It resulted rather mostly an urban renewal invitation from the city itself. Philadelphia, looking forward to the Bicentennial was undertaking to “clean up” eastern Center City, the historic neighborhoods around Independence Hall and the other surviving historic sites. Urban renewal, suburbanization, even highway development in the 60’s compose another chapter in American history that can be told effectively from the perspectives of race and class.

Leadership at the Pennsylvania Southeast Conference of the UCC said Old First’s return to 4th/Race would never work!

Today’s incarnation of Old First is definitely characterized by our Center City ministry. Our social location determines our mission and service. And from Old City, we now draw a diverse congregation drawn from the whole bi-state metropolitan area.

Bob Schneider points out rightly that Old First is an institution with a remarkable ability to reinvent itself for changing social circumstances. That may well be the genius of this institution.

I would add that much of what has happened in our long history was not of our own choosing, but what happened around us. You might say “what happened to us.” The Alban Institute suggests that 80% of what affects a local congregation is completely beyond its control.

Of course, we have had and made choices in response. Perhaps it is in the 20% where all the questions of our faithfulness lie. How well we respond to the situation or mission context that God is calling us to serve in? It’s a pressing question, or series of questions, for every new ministry moment.

What are the realities of our time for ministry?
What choices do deindustrialization and immigration place before us?
What will the rise of cultural diversity, the weakening of many guiding social traditions, and increasing secularization mean for our ministry?

Old City is now a trendy residential neighborhood of galleries and boutiques and restaurants and bars. We still find ministry to the urban poor in the shadows of Center City. But we are also recognizing and prospering in ministry opportunities among educated young adults.

Rather than a neighborhood church, we now claim the whole city– wherein the population is decreasing and economics getting tighter. Actually, we reach well beyond the city well into the suburbs of the wider metro area. What hopeful alternatives can we offer to normative secular existence in our fast-paced, disconnected, technological world?

What are the choices we need to make? How’s God calling us to serve in these new circumstances?

See you in church,


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